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Unbeknownst To His Family, Virginia High School Student Recruited For ISIS

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

On this Friday, let's look back at the case of a Virginia teenager who, a week ago, was sentenced to 11 years in prison. His crime - aiding the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Ali Shukri Amin is 17. He was a good student at a suburban high school, and he'd never gotten in trouble with the law. In fact, he seemed headed for college. He'd been accepted by Virginia Commonwealth University. But it turned out that Ali Shukri Amin had a secret life online. And when discovered, he was tried as an adult. Andrew McCabe, the FBI's assistant director in charge of the Washington office, came into our studio to talk more about the case.

Good morning.

ANDREW MCCABE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Some of the charges against this young man, Ali Shukri Amin, have been portrayed in the media - I don't know if you could call it benign - but there's a suggestion - teen gets 11 years for tweeting support for ISIS, that sort of a headline - not the full picture of what was going on here.

MCCABE: That's right. That's right. We certainly don't consider his activity to have been benign. You really have to understand the type of kid that Ali is. He's incredibly bright, very articulate, very persuasive. Unfortunately, he applied those abilities and those skills to recruiting his friends and spreading the propaganda and the message of ISIL. So it's far beyond just tweeting and talking about ISIL. He actively recruited supporters into the organization and facilitated at least one person's travel over to Syria for the purpose of fighting with ISIL.

MONTAGNE: There are other elements to this. It has to do with funding, providing material support. I know some of the charges involve supporting terrorist organizations.

MCCABE: That's right. So, as you know, Renee, it's certainly not a crime to go online, to look at propaganda, to educate yourself and to talk about and to tweet about terrorist groups. There's - nothing about that is illegal. That is First Amendment-protected activity. When it becomes a crime is when you are actively providing support and assistance to that designated terrorist organization.

So Ali was doing that in several ways. And one of those was he was actively, essentially, teaching others how to avoid detection in their provision of support to ISIS - how to use bitcoin to avoid detection by law enforcement, how to travel, who meet with overseas in order to facilitate your connection to the terrorist group. And, of course, as we know, he actively recruited and assisted getting one of his friends to travel to Syria.

MONTAGNE: The message here, is it really a question of nipping - attempting to nip this in the bud?

MCCABE: Well, I think the message here is exactly that - do not support terrorist groups in any way. And this is just one way, maybe a new way, that we've seen this taking place. ISIS has taken the delivery of propaganda - terrorist propaganda to a new level. And they've done it in such an incredibly professional and effective way, you now have that volatile, attractive, violent propaganda being pushed directly to our young people, to our disaffected, sometimes isolated, folks each and every day, and it is having an impact on our community. Five years ago, 10 years ago, it was much tougher for people who are interested in this sort of extremism. It was much tougher for them to come in contact with that material.

MONTAGNE: Well, finally, just back to Ali Shukri Amin, he wrote an emotional letter to the judge before he was sentenced, saying - and I'm going to quote from the letter - "I became lost and caught up in something that takes the greatest and most profound teachings of Islam and turns them into justifications for violence and death." Is it important or can it even be that this case of one young man would be an example for other young would-be radicals? Will they be paying attention? Will they see this? Will it be anything bigger than who he is?

MCCABE: I would certainly hope so, Renee. We know that Ali had many interactions with his own mosque, with his own imam, with other spiritual advisers in his community. It's taken him a long time to get to this position where, according to his own statements, he believes that he was misled. And he's now, unfortunately, paying a very high price for that. I hope that message is getting out and that other young people who are similarly attracted to the ISIS message are seeing how that story turns out because the narrative that they are projecting is a false one. It is not a good life in Syria. And it is not a benevolent way to support your family and your community.

MONTAGNE: FBI Assistant Director Andrew McCabe, thank you very much for joining us.

MCCABE: Thanks very much, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.